Customer Reviews: Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas
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on April 11, 2012
From Rowley's Whiskey Forge:

It has become a cliché of modern bartending that bitters are to cocktails as salt is to soup. They are the seasoning, the ingredient that can turn merely acceptable drinks into stellar ones. Or, as one Filipino friend explained to another in a turn close to my heart, "Bitters are to cocktails as bay leaves are to adobo." You may or may not be able to pinpoint the taste, but without it, everything has a certain flatness.

If you already make your own cocktail bitters, chances are that Brad Thomas Parsons' recent book on the subject holds little new for you. On the other hand, if you're just starting to dabble or don't know where to begin, Bitters conveniently brings together a lot of material in one place. With no other bitters manual in print, one might even call it indispensable for the DIY cocktail enthusiast.

After some introductory remarks and history, Parsons dives into the meat of the matter with short profiles of some two dozen players in today's bitters boom: Fee Brothers, Bittermans, The Bitter Truth, Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters, Bar Keep Bitters, Scrappy's, and more. Not a bad lineup considering that a decade ago, Angostura, Fee Brothers, and Peychaud's were the three remaining bitters producers that survived Prohibition. He includes recipes for thirteen bitters such as apple, orange, rhubarb, coffee-pecan, and root beer bitters. A substantial collection of cocktail recipes using bitters -- more than half the book -- rounds out the pages.

Parsons clearly has spent much time obsessing over bitters; he interviews appropriate authorities and booze pundits, he includes the right companies and products, and he hits the high points of history. He's done his homework. Yet there's a clumsiness about his writing. After going on for some length about sassafras, for instance, Parsons calls for using it in a recipe -- but what part of the plant? The powdered leaves he writes about? The root he mentions? They are as different as ham and bacon. Or consider this entry under Snake Oil Bitters: "Not much is known about this lineup of Brooklyn bitters or their creator..." Really? That's either lazy or disingenuous.

The passage that prompted me to bark out in disbelief, though, is this:

"Once I've sized up a joint, I'll ask the bartender, 'Do you make your own bitters?' More often than not, the answer is yes."

Oh, come on. Laudable as making bitters is, I guarantee you that the vast majority of American bartenders do no such thing. I can only imagine that this is a sampling error stemming from Parsons' preference for places with what he deems "serious bar programs." I like those places, too, but they're far from the only game in town.

While there are welcome lists of bittering and flavoring agents, there's no attempt to give them Linnaean names or even thumbnail descriptions. When plants' common names vary from place to place and related plants often parade under the same name, specifying genus and species is especially important, a convention one finds in the most useful gardening books and horticultural tomes. The lists entirely omit traditional bitters coloring agents such as sandalwood, Brazil wood, and cochineal.

Don't get me wrong; I'm glad to own a copy. If you're into cocktails, you should get one, too, if only to understand this core ingredient better. Even if you have no intention to macerate, infuse, percolate, and use homemade bitters, there's a wealth of recipes for cocktails using commercial examples. It's just that I would prefer to have seen a stronger editorial hand here, a more rigorous historical and scientific review before Bitters had gone to print. If I sound disappointed, it's because the book is merely good; it could have been great.
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on April 21, 2012
For a book that bills itself as "A spirited history..." this book is woefully short of interesting historical information. You do get a little, around a dozen pages worth, but even if you discount the early use of bitters in or as patent medicines or tonics, their place in cocktail culture deserves far better research and story telling that this book provides. Taking the case of Abbott's Bitters, which ceased production in the early 1950s, cocktail geeks far and wide have obsessed about the product for years, going so far as performing gas chromatography on samples and talking to surviving relatives of the producers. But the author apparently did none of that and only gives a couple of half-hearted paragraphs about a 1907 trademark lawsuit between the makers of Angostura Bitters and Abbott's before launching into a two-page personal anecdote about a bartender friend making him a Manhattan with the last of his antique Abbott's.

In a nutshell, that is either the strength or downfall of the entire book depending on your preference. The book is essentially a collection of recipes for several flavors of homemade bitters and an abundance of cocktails that make use of bitters. But most of the text of the book is a memoir of the author's personal experiences with and paean to the modern speakeasy (high-toned cocktail bar) and its place in today's foodie subculture. On that count, this book is reasonably well done. There is a lot of attractive photography of bartenders making beautiful looking cocktails. The writing isn't bad although it feels more like reading someone's blog than a professionally produced book.

As a counter example, I was expecting something along the lines of Jeff Berry's books, where the author's voice is present but fades into the background as he tells the stories of the personalities and places involved in the tropical drink and restaurant fad that began in the 1940s. There the history is the material, not the author's obvious love for the topic.

Regarding the actual meat of the book, the recipes, the selection of drink recipes contains something for every taste. I'm sure everyone will find something they think is new and interesting and fantastic and something they think is undrinkable. The bitters recipes themselves are probably what most people would buy the book for, and they unfortunately suffer from a pretty big flaw. The method used to make the bitters is the same for all of them. Not only does this waste a bunch of space as the same exact steps are duplicated for every recipe, but the method seems to work better for some recipes than others and is susceptible to a particularly strong or fresh ingredient throwing off the desired flavor profile of the batch of bitters. It's also a different method than what many professional bartenders who experiment with making their own bitters do (based on reading their blogs online).

All in all, if you're looking for a pretty book full of anecdotes about drinking in hip modern bars with cool bartenders and other foodies then this is a great book. If you're looking for good information about how to make your own bitters or especially if you're interested in the history of bitters, the interwebs are a better place to start.
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on January 5, 2012
The title of the book is a bit misleading, because so much more than just some history of bitters and bunch of recipes. Everything from history to setting up your bar and mixology basics. This book is able to cover a wide variety of topics in a way that is surprisingly well focused and concise. The majority of the book is recipes (Bitters, Drinks and Food) and I can't help but to be impressed about the care taken with the them. Each one has a small introduction, with a little bit of history, a personal anecdote, or a little bit of whimsy that really helps the reader connect with the text. Nothing in this book is an afterthought or out of context filler like you see with so many drink books.

The book does go into comprehensive detail about the bitters available on the market today. The list is very comprehensive, even talking about fairly obscure Bitters such as BitterCube (Wisconsin). Brad goes out on a limb and makes a recommendation of the 11 comercial must have bitters for your cocktail bar. Once you have the feel for the commercially produced bitters you move on to how to make your own. The book breaks down the recipes into a very approachable format. If I were to have a criticism it's would be that there's only 13 actual Bitters Recipes in the book. However, I think overall the book leaves the reader with more than enough information to continue down the road of making bitters.

Who Should Read this Book: Drink Nerds, High Functioning Alcoholics with standards, Home-brewers.
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on November 2, 2011
Grab a well chilled coupe glass and find inspiration for well-crafted potables in this gorgeous book. Cocktail culture is back, baby. Geek out on the history of bitters, learn how to craft your own bespoke bitters, or get right down to business and shake (or stir) something special from any of the 70+ recipes. I went with one of the old-guard recipes this eve and made a Martinez Cocktail with Carpano Antica. Thanks for the enlightenment, Mr. Parsons.
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on February 15, 2016
A very interesting read that definitely tells you the story of the cocktails’ unsung hero: the bitters.

Ever since reading it, I have found myself experimenting with bitters more and now own my own collection, and look forward to making my own soon. Anyone serious about home bar-tending should get this book and give it a read, unless you are already fully familiar with the use of bitters, in which case get it to hand to people who ask about why your drinks have so much depth and character. Or hand it to a self-proclaimed home bartender who’s drinks don’t have any depth or character, to help them out.
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Loosely speaking, I found this book divided into four sections. The first - and for me, possibly the least interesting - summarizes a bit of history of these botanical concoctions. They go back centuries, to eras when all medicine was herbal medicine, and medical effect was largely imagined or wishful thinking. That lead to wild (and sometimes hazardous) combinations of ingredients. Things like Coca Cola blurred the line between drug and foodstuff. Then, in the early twentieth century, a few things happened to change the market of herbal elixirs. Drug safety laws cut back the more extravagant claims of curing everything from acne to yaws, drug enforcement laws banished cocaine and opiates from the retail shelves, and then The Prohibition all but ended the use of flavorings in alcohol. Only now are bars recovering from the damage done by that unfortunate legislation.

Against that backdrop, the second section really offers what I came for. It provides recipes for a range of bitters, and demonstrates common proportions of the least familiar ingredients. Given these as bases, and given the strongly stereotyped procedure for preparing the bitters, I'm eager to try a few, then go off on my own. (Maybe I'll try the cranberry bitters, alluded to but without recipe or suppliers.) The third section provides not just cocktail recipes from different eras of the American cocktail history, but a glimpse into the world of cocktail culture and community. Wow - some people take their tipple incredibly seriously. I can't complain too much, though, because these bold and dedicated explorers have made it possible for dabblers like me to get started. The book's fourth section interested me only a little, as the non-beverage culinary uses of bitters.

Outside of the recipes, the lists of common (and uncommon) ingredients in bitters were very helpful, as were lists of suppliers. The latter might not be very useful years from now, but will help readers contemporary with the book's publishing. This brings together information from a wide range of sources, many of them historical, personal, and otherwise difficult to access. For someone like me, interested in the topic but not dedicated to it, this represents a unique resource for this very specialized corner of the culinary world.

-- wiredweird, a bitters old man

Update: Tested the orange bitters recipe. It has a fresher orange taste than any commercial product I've tried. Next time, I might boost the minor flavors and bitterness - not complaining, it's just that I mess with almost every recipe I try.
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on April 18, 2014
Let me start by saying I have just gotten into the idea of making bitters, and have read a bunch on the interweb. I bought this to find out more in depth information about mixing techniques, hoping to find deep explanations and theories about the different things I found on the Web. Instead I found a recipe book with lots of recipes for bitters and drinks, but essentially every recipe uses the exact same technique to actually produce the biters.

The historical information was nice, but the actual "reading" portion of this book took me about 30 minutes.

If you are looking for recipes for bitters and bitter containing drinks, get this book. If you are looking for a fascinating read about bitters or for in depth explanations of various techniques to make your own bitters, you will find more information in 30 minutes on the interweb.
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on November 26, 2011
This book is super informative on the topic. As a spirits professional this read is a must. Throughout my career as a mixologist I have wished for a guide to bitters. This is it. Parsons tells a great story and offers recipes to make your own bitters and tinctures, and fabulous cocktails. This book is a must for any cocktail mixing nutjob like myself.
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on March 20, 2014
I have been reading this book for personal enjoyment, work, my spirits class and general interest. Bought the top ten bitters they recommend and I am trying the cocktails now. Wonderful history lessons, how to make drinks and how to make your own bitters. Truly a glorious read and fun book. Also includes some food recipes. Any happier and I'd have to be medicated.
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on November 1, 2013
Brad Thomas Parsons does a wonderful job explaining the historical rise, fall, and renaissance of bitters in this book. I bought it mostly for the recipes, but found that I enjoyed the history section even more! The recipes, of course, are excellent as well. With clear instructions and lists of ingredients and equipment, you'll be making your own bitters and impressing your hipster friends in no time.
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